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Given a year to live, girl cancer-free for 10 years

October 12, 2000

Given a year to live, girl cancer-free for 10 years



By JULIE E. GREENE / Staff Writer

photo: RIC DUGAN / staff photographer

Kristy HahnKEARNEYSVILLE, W.Va. - A decade ago Kristy Hahn's family was told by a doctor that the little girl, not quite 2 years old, had less than a year to live.

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Kristy made a remarkable recovery following nine months of treatment in 1990. Subsequent annual checkups showed no symptoms of the cancer.

Doctors still were hesitant to say the cancer was gone, said Kristy's mother, Dessa McDonald. They would always tell her to wait until it had been 10 years, when Kristy could be considered cured.

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The wait is over.

On Saturday, approximately 70 family and friends are expected at Byron Memorial Park in Williamsport to help Kristy, 12, celebrate her 10-year anniversary of being cancer-free.

"I believe God had to have a hand on Kristy's life," said McDonald, 32, of Parkview Park outside Kearneysville. "I would ask God not to put Kristy through all this if He was just going to take her."

McDonald is grateful for the experimental treatments her daughter received at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore but ultimately attributes Kristy being free of cancer for 10 years to God.

Doctors detected the cancer when a black eye Kristy received after falling on a coffee table failed to fade, said McDonald, who lived in Sharpsburg, Md., at the time. A CAT scan picked up a mass.

So on Jan. 2, 1990, McDonald took her 20-month-old daughter to Hopkins where the baby was diagnosed with the childhood cancer that develops in immature nerve cells, preventing them from changing into mature nerve cells.

Kristy was enrolled in a study and given experimental treatments.

"This was the only option we had or take her home to die," said McDonald.

For a child older than one year with stage four neuroblastoma, like Kristy, the chance of being cured is 10 percent, said Dr. Alan Friedman, one of the doctors who has treated Kristy at Hopkins.

Neuroblastoma is typically diagnosed between the first few months and the age of 5 and affects 500 children a year in the United States, he said. Of those 500 cases, approximately 200 are at stage four.

Kristy's treatment included two surgeries and a bone marrow transplant in which doctors set aside some of Kristy's bone marrow, gave her total body radiation and chemotherapy for six days and then restored her bone marrow.

The time around the bone marrow transplant was the worst because the medication and radiation can be hard on the heart, McDonald said.

"I did a lot of praying let me tell you," McDonald said.

Today the only noticeable signs that Kristy is recovering from cancer are the pills she takes to combat side effects of her treatment and, for the past eight months, a growth hormone shot she gets six days a week, but mostly her days are filled with typical youthful pursuits.

She enjoys jumping on her trampoline and cheerleading for T.A. Lowery Elementary School.

It's a blessing that Kristy doesn't remember the crying and the treatments, her mother said.

McDonald said she attended church when she was young and sporadically as an adult, but it wasn't until she saw "God doing things in Kristy's life" that her faith became stronger.

When doctors performed surgery in April 1990 to remove tumors from Kristy's adrenal glands, they opened her up to find the tumors had dissolved, leaving behind only scar tissue, McDonald said.

"I had to believe that God had his hand in that," said McDonald, who became a Sunday School teacher two years ago at Kearneysville Word of Faith Tabernacle.

While prayer can't hurt, Friedman believes the treatment played a major role in Kristy's recovery.

Chemotherapy treatment may have shrunk the tumors, Friedman said. Scans may have shown a residual mass, but until doctors go in for that second look after the initial biopsy they don't know whether they'll find tumors or scar tissue, he said.

If not the first, Kristy was one of the first children with stage four neuroblastoma whom Hopkins' doctors cured, Friedman said.

"We always talk about her as one of our great successes. We always think back to her as the one that we cured," said Friedman, a pediatric oncologist who was Kristy's primary doctor.

"I'm willing to think God had a hand in that together with the treatment, guiding the treatment, guiding the outcome," Friedman said.

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